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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Living for Art

A DAY AT BARD COLLEGE’S SUMMERSCAPE FESTIVAL is a journey through a well-planned series of events. For example, the program on Sunday, August 7, began with a panel addressing the topic of music and Italian identity, seeking to establish Puccini’s place in the country’s cultural history. The day’s second event gave us a mix of vocal excerpts from Puccini and his contemporaries to illuminate the search for Verdi’s successor. And the long, extremely satisfying late-afternoon performance treated us to Puccini’s first opera alongside a work by Jules Massenet chosen to remind us of the strength of his influence.

Giacomo Puccini
The scholarship behind the two August weekends that comprise the festival is profound, but the academic portions usually aren’t too academic. And the artistry on hand is superb. “Puccini and His World” was the theme this year and, as is customary, the programming included the composer’s predecessors, contemporaries, and successors – without neglecting his own works, particularly some lesser-performed ones.

Thus, a concert version of Puccini’s “Le Villi” gave us a look at the composer’s first thoughts about crafting an opera. Although the mantle of Verdi was formidable, we knew, thanks to the earlier events, that Puccini was heavily influenced by composers in Germany and especially in France. He crafted a one-act opera that he soon expanded into two (but it still runs barely over an hour) with an instrumental intermezzo.

Puccini knew “Le Villi” as a French story, although Heine had hold of it earlier. It’s a dance-based tale, and also forms the basis for Adolphe Adam’s ballet “Giselle.” Thus the opening featured a dance that would be mirrored by the gruesome finish. The principals – soprano Talise Travigne as Anna, tenor Sean Panikkar as her fiancé, Roberto – weren’t called upon for too much terpsichorean prowess, which is just as well: they performed in the small proscenium space between conductor and stage edge, and movement had to be stylized and kept to a minimum.

But kudos to director Mary Birnbaum for using that space so creatively. At the beginning of Act Two, for example, after the betrayed Anna has expired, her grieving father, Guglielmo (sung very effectively by baritone Levi Hernandez), entered slowly, crossed to the music stand Anna had been using, and mournfully removed it. Sounds almost silly thus described, but at that point in the piece it was heartbreaking.

Likewise in Massenet’s “La Navarraise,” the scope of which moves from village to battlefield. We were easily persuaded to see such locations on the strength of the illusion created by the passion of music and song. Panikkar returned to sing the role of Araquil, the soldier with whom Anita (mezzo-soprano Nora Sourouzian) is in love. But she’s the titular woman from Navarre, and Araquil’s father, Remigio (Hernandez again), refuses to let them marry unless she can produce a dowry of an impossible sum. She discovers a secret way to raise the cash, but it inflames Araquil into such wild jealousy that Anita herself goes nuts in a final scene that demonstrated how fluid musical and dramatic influence can be. Although Massenet was demonstrably an early influence on Puccini, this later work proved that the Italian verismo style had made its way back to France.

And Sourouzian was a powerhouse, foreshadowing her condition early on and using her rich, powerful voice to support her descent. Panikkar also has a hell of a voice, so their duets and ensemble work with Hernandez were astonishing.

Scenic designer Grace Laubacher and projection designer Andrew Lazarow made excellent use of projections throughout, setting the atmosphere for each scene and, in some cases, adding some useful text (although typeface choices were sometimes inelegant).

Sean Pannikar and Talise Trevigne in Le Villi
Photo by Cory Weaver
Conductor (and scholar, and Bard College president, and essayist, and larger-than-life personality) Leon Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in virtuoso performances of these operas, assisted by the Bard Festival Chorale, which was directed by James Bagwell.

If Puccini was fascinated by non-Italian settings for his work, explained scholar-in-residence Emanuele Senici, it should be remembered that he was writing for a world-wide audience, and even after Italy’s unification the country remained, as far as the people were concerned, a nation of regions. Thus, if something was set in Florence, Venetians might take exception. But music, on the whole, was an important tool for creating Italy’s nationalistic identity.

This was the subject of the morning’s panel discussion, moderated by the lively and insightful Senici, with an illustrated presentation by Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon, tag-teaming one another through a scholarly script before opening the floor to self-serving monologues by still more scholars and scholars manqué.

It was a relief to return to Olin Hall at 1 PM for the abovementioned vocal recital. “Opera after Verdi” needs some Verdi to begin, thus tenor Theo Lebow gave us a tuneful selection from “Falstaff” that also illustrated Senici’s point, as he took us from song to song, that as opera moved closer to the pace of spoken drama, the component musical selections needed to remain tuneful without grinding things to a halt.

Thus was an early Puccini aria (“Questo amor,” from “Edgar”) contrasted with a moment from the much-later “Suor Angelica,” in which the aria form has all but disappeared.

Selections by Ponchielli, Montemezzi, Cilea, Mascagni, and others exhibited a brilliant array of styles and voices – and literal voices, as the singers, working to piano only, evoked each distinct world that the particular song demanded. Soprano Cecilia Violetta López and tenor César Delgado were standouts, while Erika Switzer and Anna Polonsky traded off keyboard duties with aplomb.

One instrumental interlude injected a fun, fanciful change of pace: a Gavotte from Leoncavallo’s sunk-into-obscurity version of “La bohème,” cheerfully ripping off the opening phrase of a Bach solo violin piece and then taking it through a series of danceable changes and variations, played with sunny dexterity by Bard alumna Allegra Chapman, who should have been given more to do at that piano.

The musical and intellectual immersion offered by a day like this are addictive, and there are more such days to come this weekend, under the theme “Beyond Verismo.” Check out the schedule at Bard’s Summerscape website, grab some tickets, and go.

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